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Albright-Knox may scrap original expansion plan, build elsewhere on site

After facing pressure from preservationists over plans to radically alter a beloved building by Gordon Bunshaft, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery announced Friday that it will consider building on a different site.

"The museum and its development team will re-examine an expansion option on the north and northwest side of the campus connected to the 1905 Building to determine whether this could meet the museum’s needs, while also minimizing impacts on the Albright-Knox’s historic buildings," according to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in a statement Friday afternoon.

On Nov. 3, the gallery's director, Janne Sirén, met with a four-member subcommittee of the Buffalo Preservation Board to discuss their concerns.

According to Preservation Board Chair Paul McDonnell, gallery officials also recently met with staff from the New York State Historic Preservation Office to gain a clearer understanding of preservationists' objections to the original concept.

"We totally understood their issues, but obviously some of the options were going to dramatically damage the historic fabric of the building," McDonnell said.

McDonnell called the alternative concept "much less invasive" than the one that raised the ire of the board in June.

The gallery shared images showing a rough illustration of the proposed concept with Preservation Board members, but declined to share those images with The Buffalo News.

The gallery's news release emphasized that the original concept, which would reconfigure the current galleries and courtyard of the Bunshaft building into an airy entry hall and pedestrian pass-through, is still on the table.

Will preservationists again change the course of Albright-Knox expansion?

"The museum continues to believe that the initial concept provides an excellent operating solution for the future Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum," the gallery's statement read.

In a phone interview, Albright-Knox Communications Director Maria Morreale dismissed questions about the change in plan, saying the gallery had "nothing to add" to what was in its released statement.

Morreale declined comment on whether the concept presented in June was still feasible given the community's opposition and the preservation community's claims that it violates state preservation standards.

Asked whether the gallery's consideration of a second option would result in any delays in the construction timeline previously announced, Morreale said: "We don't know."

Sirén, who has experience with museum building projects that have run into snags, has previously said the construction process would take about two years and likely be completed by October 2021.

Though renderings of the original concept have been widely circulated, Morreale declined to share any images of the second concept.

"In the next couple of weeks I'm sure we'll have some updates," she said.

In September, about three months after a controversy erupted over its plans to alter Bunshaft's building, the gallery announced the hiring of two preservation firms -- Buffalo's Preservation Studios and PDBW out of New York City -- to help guide its expansion.

Since Preservation Studios was hired in September, its Director of Municipal Services, Tom Yots, has declined to speak with The News or the public about its role in the process.

Yots, on Friday afternoon, again declined to discuss the firm's work on the project, writing that he had "nothing to add" before entertaining any questions.

The gallery also would not answer questions about its working process with the preservation firms it has hired.

"Good design emerges through an iterative process, which sometimes includes reconsidering aspects of previous ideas while also introducing new possibilities that may be worth developing," Sirén said in a statement. "We seek an optimal solution, one that will give Buffalo the expansive, inclusive, and architecturally inspiring museum the community has told us it wants."

Preservationists, at least for the moment, were taking heart in the gallery's announcement.

"I always say that architecture is like juggling a dozen balls in the air," McDonnell said. "Up until a few weeks ago I didn't think preservation was one of those balls. But now it is."

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